Interview: J. Courtney Sullivan, Author Of 'Friends And Strangers' J. Courtney Sullivan's new novel examines the relationship between a mother and her child's caregiver — both women with significant degrees of privilege, despite their surface economic differences.

Privilege Takes Many Forms In 'Friends And Strangers'

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It is one of the most intimate and complicated relationships around. And for many women - and, yes, it is mostly women - it's an all important one. I'm talking about the relationship between a mother and her child's caregiver. And that is the relationship at the heart of author J. Courtney Sullivan's new novel, "Friends And Strangers." J. Courtney Sullivan joins us now.


J COURTNEY SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Why this particular relationship at the heart of your story?

SULLIVAN: Well, I - as a young woman, as a teenager, I was a babysitter. And my senior year of college in particular, I took care of a little baby whose family had just moved to western Massachusetts from New York City. And her mother and I grew very close. But as tends to happen with those relationships, we did fall out of touch. And 10 years later, I was back at Smith to give a reading from one of my books. And I came out to the street and I was standing at the crosswalk. A car pulled up and behind the wheel of the car was this woman who I had babysat for, and I was waving frantically like, hi, it's me, and she had no idea who I was. I went back to New York that night and was telling a friend the story, who is also a novelist, and she said, oh, that should be your next book. But I wasn't really sure what I'd say. And it wasn't until several years later when I was pregnant with my first child that I started thinking I might want to write it because suddenly I had been kind of both women, the mother and the babysitter.

KELLY: Right. Well, that's so interesting because I thought you were going to tell me how much you identified with one of the central characters in this book, Elisabeth, who is the older one who's the mom and the writer, and she's just moved from Brooklyn. And I will note that you are a mom and a writer and you live in Brooklyn. And I thought that was going to be where you identified with, and that's interesting. You're telling me that the initial kind of noodling on this in your head was going on based on your experience as the younger woman, as the babysitter in this relationship. In your book, it's a young woman named Sam who's a student at the local college. And you identify with both of them, it sounds like, in very different ways.

SULLIVAN: I absolutely do. You know, in some ways, I think when you have a friendship between women of different ages, there's a sense of wanting to help the younger woman avoid the mistakes you've made. But they're not those kind of mistakes. They're the ones you have to make on your own to really figure out what is coming.

KELLY: All right. So themes there of friendship, of motherhood. I want to shift you to another one that struck me throughout the book, which is the theme of privilege. Elisabeth comes from money, and it blinds her, makes her insensitive in some ways to Sam and what Sam needs, also makes her blind to her in-laws and the financial troubles they face. But why was that something you wanted to explore?

SULLIVAN: Well, from the very beginning of thinking about this book, I knew that class would play a big role in the story. And, you know, in many ways, this is a book about the gig economy, the shrinking safety net, sort of weight of student loan debt and other forms of economic hardship on young people and certainly also the notion that privilege takes many forms. So Elisabeth is someone who comes from a lot of money. She has not accepted her family money and therefore feels that she's sort of really above it and views herself actually as self-made, even though she really isn't. But even Sam, you know, sort of wrestles with the fact that although she is saddled with a lot of student loan debt and a lot of other things, her education is a form of privilege. Her citizenship is a form of privilege. So I think both of them really kind of wrestle with that.

KELLY: It really resonates this theme in this moment when so many of us are examining the blind spots that our privilege might create, whether it's class, whether it's race. And that is an uncomfortable thing to do. I wonder, was it uncomfortable to write?

SULLIVAN: I don't know that it was uncomfortable because it is so much a part of our culture right now. So, you know, I feel like I couldn't have written anything else in this particular moment, really. You know, there's a real push back in the book from Elisabeth's father-in-law, George, that this country has been emphasizing now for so long the individual. And if you've lost your business as George has in the book, you must have done something wrong where, actually, it's these systems of power and wealth that are very much stacked against the average person. I think we're seeing that come to bear when this pandemic occurs. And for people who have a great job and a salary and health insurance, maybe they still have that even though they're working from their kitchen table, but there are millions of people who just lost their jobs in a blink.

KELLY: I mean, one thing I love that you play with, though, is that it's not just Elisabeth. Sam, the younger, less well-off character also enjoys privilege. And you write her as being tone deaf in a lot of ways to her friends who work in the school cafeteria who are mostly women of color. Are you making a point there? Are you exploring, you know, we all have our blind spots?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. You know, Sam thinks she's doing what's best for her friends, but really she isn't. And, you know, what she does basically is she has this realization as an undergrad and very well-meaning undergrad that the women who work in the dining hall and housekeeping in her college are not well compensated. You know, in my research, I found that probably every year or two, there's a big kerfuffle at a American university where a student kind of realizes or a group of students realizes, you know, this isn't fair. And they will appeal to the college, and they will write letters and stage protests, but generally nothing changes. And so I kind of wondered, well, what does it feel like to be the worker in the dining hall who has to be someone's personal epiphany every three years?

KELLY: I - without going through all of the twists and turns and all the things that these two women learn from each other, fair to say, I think in the end, that their relationship is not so uneven by the end. What did you learn from writing this? Is there a lesson you take away from Sam and Elisabeth and the characters you created here?

SULLIVAN: I think so. I think, you know, every novel is kind of a time capsule of where the writer was at that moment. And when I started writing this book, I, to be honest, had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I was living in New York City. And when you live in New York in your 20s, it's kind of like college where everyone sort of seems the same. You know, everyone has three roommates. Everyone is hustling. And you reach your 30s, and people start getting married and having kids. And suddenly, it's like some poet you know is moving into a $5 million brownstone in Park Slope and you're like, wait a minute. How did that happen? And you kind of begin to realize, oh, you know, some people really come from a lot of money and some of us are still paying off our college loans and will be forever, you know? So I really had a chip on my shoulder about that for a while.

And when I started writing this book, I saw Elisabeth as sort of one of those people. You know, she's not a bad person, but she does sort of have a blind spot to her own wealth. However, I kind of realized that someone in the middle like Sam or like me, to be honest, is afforded so much privilege just by having an education, even if the education cost you dearly. So I think it has been a sort of a personal thing as well as a story arc in this book that privilege takes many, many forms.

KELLY: J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the new novel "Friends And Strangers," thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you for having me.

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